The 2016 election is the “year of the outsider.” It is a bad year for politicians to be, in the parlance of this election cycle, a member of the establishment.
This is not an entirely novel phenomenon in American politics. Yes, the actual word establishment only rose to prominence recently (with the oft-repeated “establishment lane” analogy to describe non-Trump, non-Tea Party Republicans). But the idea that the American people dislike “political insiders” is almost as old as the Republic itself.
Media outlets are tempted to shoehorn this election, and the cast of characters within it, into preexisting roles. They draw historical parallels between Donald Trump and outsider candidates like Barry Goldwater (1964) or George Wallace (1964, 1968, 1972); they compare Bernie Sanders and his campaign to Ronald Reagan (1976) or Edward Kennedy (1980).
These parallels are accurate to a certain extent. They capture, for instance, the tension between what “We The People” wants and whom “the Party” thinks should represent the ticket.
At the same time, 2016 is vastly—and troublingly—different
For the first time in modern American history, the nominee for at least one of the two major parties (Donald Trump) is arguably not a member of that Party. And although incredibly unlikely, it is “technically” possible that Bernie Sanders—a man who has spent the better part of three decades in public service decrying the Democratic and Republican parties as the “party of the ruling class”—could capture the Democratic nomination.
This is not the third-party Wallace running in 1968 and being shut out by the Democratic Party. This is not the Republican Reagan trying to wrest the nomination from Ford. This is qualitatively different.
Americans are, in far greater numbers than ever before, voicing their displeasure with the current two-party system. This is, to quote Joe Biden, “A big f***ing deal.”
How did we get to this point? To put things into perspective, we must understand three things: (1) the rise of political independents (and what to make of them); (2) how this links with a lack of faith in political parties; and (3) why, if the issue is unaddressed, the United States will continue toward a massive political crisis.
The Declaration of Independents?
Depending on how one measures it, the percentage of “independents” in the American voting population is between 10% (estimated by examining voting history—which party one has actually voted for) and 40% (a figure derived from how many Americans “self-report” as independents).
Of these figures, political scientists find the first is useful in understanding voting behavior. To put it crassly: knowing that someone is a “self-identified” independent is less important when thinking about voting behavior because, when push comes to shove, most of them still vote as if they are Democrats or Republicans.
I now think this approach is a mistake. In our attempt to correctly identify independents by their voting behavior—the 10% of the population—we have missed the greater import behind the 40%. That meaning is now abundantly clear: many Americans have lost all faith in political parties.
This aversion to identifying with parties is part of larger trends in public trust, but is also exacerbated by government gridlock. Congress has ground to a standstill. The White House resorts to unpopular executive actions to accomplish anything. And because of the Senate’s inaction and the politicization of the Court, the Supreme Court is likely to remain in a state of dysfunction for some time.
It’s no wonder that some Americans want someone to “burn the place down.”
This is the fertile ground into which both Trump and Sanders have planted their seeds of unrest. Their rhetoric is strikingly similar: the nominating process is “dumb” and “rigged” by the establishment. And it seems to be working.
Trump lays into the R.N.C. and prominent Republicans (like former nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney; but also sitting governors like Scott Walker and Susana Martinez) whenever he feels the Party had not treated him “fairly.” Bernie Sanders, though perhaps less capricious, is equally willing to throw the Democratic Party under the bus in his pursuit of the presidency. His recent refusal to unequivocally disavow political violence at the Nevada delegate selection caucus is but one example.
This outright detestation of Party is both politically expedient and absolutely unique in modern American history. Party dissolution is not new—the Whigs replaced the Federalists, and the Republicans replaced the Whigs—but mass rebellion within both parties at once is absolutely new.
To my knowledge, it is the first time in modern politics that two major party candidates—in different parties, in the same election cycle—have so publically and so vociferously stoked anti-party sentiment.
In Defense of Parties
Political parties can be frustrating. We often don’t get what we want, and the prospect of compromise is seen as weakness.
Political parties can seem crass. Many of the Founders—George Washington especially—felt parties were at best lowly institutions, and at worst downright dangerous.
But two hundred and forty years have proven Washington wrong. Parties, with all of their failings, are immeasurably useful. As the political scientist V.O. Key points out, they direct action in government; offer organization between local, state, and national interests; and structure political beliefs in the electorate.
In a word, political parties make politics make sense. They offer both stability and predictability, helping informed voters choose between candidates whose policy views differ. When parties function well—what the American Political Science Association wrote about in its seminal “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System”—they organize political action in intelligible ways.
It is for this reason that, however unpopular it may be to say today, we must concede that parties have some freedom to determine rules for participating in their nominating contests. For instance, the idea of superdelegates in the Democratic Party ensure that the Party—and those who have given it time and money, and who have run as its representatives—has some degree of say as to who represents the party in elections.
By limiting the absolute popular input in the candidate selection process, we ensure that parties do more than follow public opinion. They represent interests greater than one person. The offer continuity from one leader to another, as well as between leaders—both public figures and private citizens.
Now this is not to say that the Republican and Democratic parties are perfect today, or that their rules—by virtue of the fact that they are public rules—are immune from criticism. As political institutions that serve the public, parties must be careful not to seem (or be) opposed to the peoples’ interests.
All the same, political parties are an indispensible element of American democracy. Advocating change is one thing; but Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are purposefully undermining the very legitimacy of parties as institutions. And that we cannot allow.
Parties are the last bulwarks against demagogues. To channel John Adams, parties check the passions of the people and prevent democracies from murdering themselves.
Yet “murder democracy” is precisely what the American people seem bent on doing.
Parties, at their best, order the political world in intelligible ways. Even today, though the parties are in need of reform, they offer a chance at stability.
This should not be too difficult. Again, only a quarter of those who “claim” to be independents are actually politically independent. The rest (some 30% of the electorate) lean to either the Democratic or Republican parties. Some balance—whether it’s the American people registering with parties in greater numbers, or the parties doing away with closed primaries and caucuses (or some combination of the above)—can be attained.
What we cannot allow to happen is political gridlock and disaffection to feed into one another further.
The result is people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, agitating with incendiary language—and encouraging or failing to disavow physical violence. These men, different though they may be in policy prescriptions, are equally detrimental to the health of a democracy. Their followers are fueled by the same disaffection. Rather than fan those flames, let us together salvage the system we have.
Americans are experiencing a crisis of faith. Faith in our institutions. Faith in our leaders. Faith in our parties. It is the lack of faith in parties that makes the 2016 presidential election so remarkable. It is also why this election is perhaps the most consequential, and potentially most dangerous, in our nation’s history.
We need political parties. When they cease to be useful in ordering public life, public life will be ruled by personality.
Personality is a tempting bridge to bypass political dysfunction. But unlike parties, personality has no accountability. When personality trumps politics, it leads to racial and ethnic scapegoating and threatens the very liberties that make democracies function.
Without political parties the American people may well get a demagogue.